What a cultish coffee gizmo says about 21st century capitalism

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Imagine discovering a cheap, simple gadget that you use at least once a day because it does a much better job of making something you crave than all the fiddly, expensive devices you tried before.

Then imagine finding out that, in all the years you have had your treasured contraption, you have not been using it properly.

This was one of two things I learnt from spending an hour on Zoom last week with Alan Adler, the 85-year-old American who invented the AeroPress. This super quick, virtually self-cleaning coffee maker has gained a cultish following across the world since its launch in 2005, despite looking very much like a big plastic needle-free syringe.

At the COP28 climate conference in Dubai in December, I met people from several continents who had brought their AeroPress with them because, as one Washington DC woman told me, “I just can’t live without it.” On a visit to Australia a bit later, I was surprised to see it was on sale everywhere from the outback’s Alice Springs to the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie.

Wondering how this unlikely hit had happened, I decided to call Adler at his home in California and, listening to him talk about the physics of making coffee, realised the error of my AeroPress ways. I’d been leaving coffee to steep for several minutes when the brilliance of the gizmo is that it produces a great, espresso-strength brew after just 30 seconds.

That was discovery number one. It also turns out that Adler’s AeroPress triumph came after he ignored much of 21st century capitalism’s conventional wisdom about how to run a successful business and workplace.

Take the way he marketed the thing, or rather didn’t. I’m not sure many top-notch marketers would think it wise to call a coffee maker an “AeroPress”. It made sense to Adler, a self-taught engineer who holds about 40 patents, because he had earlier invented a Frisbee on steroids called the Aerobie, which is what he named the sports toy company he founded in 1984.

The publicity he got after someone threw an Aerobie across Niagara Falls made him question the need for a big advertising budget. “If you wanted to buy that publicity it would have cost a million dollars,” he told me. “But it just cost us a little bit of travelling expense, well under $10,000.”

Paid advertising also took a back-seat role with the AeroPress, which Adler decided to invent after chatting to the wife of his sales manager about how hard it was to make a single cup of decent coffee with a drip machine. 

Adler spread the word by sending the device to coffee geeks and joining online forums to talk about it. Within three years of its 2005 launch, fans had set up the World AeroPress Championship, a contest to see who could brew the best AeroPress coffee. By 2014, Adler said he was making about 500,000 AeroPresses a year and demand was growing by about 40 per cent annually.

At this point, with an obvious hit on his hands, conventional profit-maximising logic might have led Adler to do three things: make the AeroPress in China; whack up its $30 price tag, and replace older, expensive staff with cheaper new ones.

Instead, he stuck with the Californian factory he had always used and today, the price of the original AeroPress model is still below $40.

“I didn’t really think about making it more expensive,” he told me, adding he simply used the pricing formula he had used for his sport toys.

As for the staff in his small business, many worked there until retirement, to his evident satisfaction. “It was sort of like a little family,” he told me.

Another thing Adler didn’t do was get a commerce degree, an MBA, or any degree at all. Rather, he embraced what he calls “the joyful experience” of learning and, despite never going to university himself, became an engineering instructor at Stanford.

In 2021, with retirement on his mind, he sold most of his business to Canada’s Tiny Capital firm, retaining a minority stake.

That’s left him with what he says is “more money than I need” — enough to support medical research at Stanford, and buy as much of his favourite coffee (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe) as he likes. Which isn’t bad for a business founder who overlooked so much of modern business thinking. 

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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